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HomeCHINA THREATENS TAIWANHow Underwater Drones Could Influence a Potential Taiwan-China Conflict!

How Underwater Drones Could Influence a Potential Taiwan-China Conflict!

A potential future conflict between Taiwan and China would likely be shaped by advanced underwater drones and increased autonomy, according to a new war-gaming experiment by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

The authors of the report describe how drone use in a South China Sea conflict would differ significantly from current practices, notably those seen in the Ukraine war, which is often referred to as the first full-scale drone war.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict has been heavily land-based, whereas a US-China conflict would be dominated by air and sea. The short flight times of small, off-the-shelf drones popular in Ukraine would render them ineffective in the South China Sea.

An Underwater War

Instead, a conflict with Taiwan would likely involve undersea and maritime drones. Given Taiwan’s proximity to China—just 100 miles from the mainland—the Taiwan Strait would be the initial theater of conflict. China’s high-tech autonomous carrier, the Zhu Hai Yun, might deploy autonomous underwater drones to scout for US submarines. These drones could launch attacks that, even if not sinking the submarines, would divert US and Taiwanese attention and resources.

China might also flood the South China Sea with decoy drone boats, making it difficult for American missiles and submarines to distinguish between valuable ships and uncrewed commercial vessels, the authors suggest.

While most drone innovation focuses on non-maritime applications, these uses have precedents: Ukrainian forces have modified jet skis to operate via remote control, using them to intimidate and sink Russian vessels in the Black Sea.

Currently, drones have limited autonomy and are typically human-piloted. Some can autopilot to a fixed GPS point, but this is generally not useful in dynamic war scenarios. However, the report’s authors note that autonomous technology is advancing rapidly, and nations with sophisticated autonomous drone fleets will have a significant advantage.

What might this look like? Both the US and China are investing millions in defense research, particularly in swarming technology, where drones navigate autonomously in groups to accomplish tasks. Though not yet deployed, this technology could be transformative in any potential conflict.

A sea-based conflict might also provide a simpler environment for AI-driven navigation, as object recognition is easier on the “relatively uncluttered surface of the ocean,” the authors write.

China’s Advantages

China’s proximity to Taiwan provides a significant advantage, with over three dozen air bases within 500 miles, compared to the closest US base being 478 miles away in Okinawa. More importantly, China leads the world in drone production.

Taiwan would first need to purchase Chinese drones for defense, which could be difficult if the Chinese government intervenes. They would then need to hack and disconnect them from their manufacturers to prevent remote deactivation or cyberattacks. This type of hacking is impractical at scale, leaving Taiwan to either produce its own drones or seek alternative manufacturers, likely in the US. Recently, the US approved a $360 million sale of 1,000 military-grade drones to Taiwan.

For now, experts can only speculate on how these drones might be used.

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